by María Magdalena Ziegler
As we explained in an earlier article, Jacques- Louis David (1748-1825) was very much involved in politics; a fervent Jacobin beside Robespierre. His unfinished work The Tennis Court Oath (1791), opened a new breach in the art field for the interpretation of the present in historical terms initiating a revolution in painting of such subjects. But the French master commitment to the revolution ideals was a great deed to him and he was willing to show it in his art any time.
In fact, the greatest demonstration of his revolutionary commitment may be a pair of very significant paintings. In mid-February 1793, the National Convention had to decide the fate of King Louis XVI. In a much closed voting -361 to 360 votes-, the Convention opts for the execution of the monarch. It was rumored at the time that the deciding vote was that of Louis-Michel Saint Fargau Lepeletier’s (1760-1793), who was also an extreme Jacobin, the author of Spartan education reforms and a firm ally to Robespierre. The night before the King’s execution, Lepeletier was murdered by a saber blow in a restaurant in the Palais Royal.
David painted the moment of his death rather than his agony. Lepeletier had been in agony for a few hours at his brother’s house, but David thought that was a better moment his painting. This art work –now lost- is only known thanks to an engraving made by Pierre Tardieu (1756-1844) from a drawing of Anatole Devosge (1770-1850) -a student of the French master. In this painting –as we can see in Tardieu’s engraving-, we can see Lepeletier’s body with the naked torso and the wound caused by the sword in his side.
Later on that same year, it would be Jean Paul Marat’s (1743-1793) turn. Marat was –would you guess? – an ardent Jacobin and a very close friend of Robespierre and Lepeletier. By mid-1793, Marat had removed himself from the political arena due to his skin condition, which required him to be most of the day immersed in water with sulfur. He worked regularly of the time at home then, using a little table in his bathtub as a desk and wrapping his head with a cloth soaked in vinegar. Those were the hot days of July and David visited him. They talked for long while.
On the 13th, Charlotte Corday (1768-1793) -Girondin of conviction- murdered Marat stabbing him deadly. The French painter was the last of the notable members of the Convention who saw Marat alive. The memory of his revolutionary friend, as he had done before with Lepeletier, leaded him to make a painting which is considered today one the most significant masterpieces of all time: The Death of Marat (1793). With great simplicity, David shows the Jacobin in his bathtub, his small desk, dead and still holding the pen (his only weapon); near the right shoulder, the mortal wound caused by Corday’s dagger which we can see lying on the floor.
This painting was unveiled to the public on October 16th, 1793, presented in conjunction with that on Lepeletier. David was responsible for organizing a ceremony in tribute to this two illustrious revolutionaries. Thomas Crow describes the scene as follows:
“In the old courtyard of the Louvre, the portraits of Marat and Lepeletier appeared hung over a pair of coffins; above both had been erected a chapel-like structure. The courtship ritual march ended before that kind of double altar. The assembly of funeral celebrants sang hymns and patriotic oaths of loyalty to the dead.”
It would be risky to say that with that David opened the gates of a national and civic religion, but it can’t be denied that this ceremony turned Lepeletier and Marat into martyrs of the Revolution. Moreover, David cleverly appealed to the iconographic forms, known and accepted by the common people in the sphere of Christianity, to present the recumbent bodies of the two elevated men. In both cases, the memory of the thematic form of the Christian Pietá is impossible to ignore. Even the Lepeletier’s wound reminds that caused by the spear into the side of the body of Christ, for example. Cunningly, David took advantage of the tradition to give a qualitative leap towards modernity. In other words, he solved a problem of his time with traditional tools and resources, converting the result into a real artistic revolution.
If The Tennis Court Oath had been the manifestation of the «public will», this two paintings were the preaching of the necessary sacrifice for the preservation of that will. With The Tennis Court Oath, David stated a project, but with the paintings about Lepeletier and Marat he raised a path through ferrous revolutionary principles. Thus, the interpretation of an event of the present which was thought to contribute greatly to the future required David different ways to use artistic resources and he found them masterly.
[Original Writing ©]